Sector Change, or More of the Same: Can the Circle Be Unbroken?

2 years ago
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“For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be
trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgement.”
Tim Wu, Professor, Columbia Law School

If you’ve been in age services for a while, and believe that our industry has the potential to be a force for good, you probably can’t help but ask why successive reviews seem to be calling for the same changes.

Equally, industry consultations seem to keep highlighting the same issues, and calling for similar solutions, albeit with slight tweaks, at times merely cosmetic.

It would be easy to chalk this up to competing priorities—pundits want to stay experts and maintain a seat at important committees, companies selling into the sector want to protect their commercial interests, and governments who say they want change may lack the will for full reform implementation—the list of reasons for stasis can be quite exhaustive.

However, such explanations still don’t explain why with each successive call for change, we as an industry, collectively seem to always land somewhere near to the status quo. There seems to be a ‘meta’ reason or driver that transcends the obvious explanations provided above.

Perhaps the real cause is due to the inherent way we learn and solve problems as expert adults. Consider the following:

  • Surgeons learning a spinal surgery technique made the most mistakes not on the first or second try, but the fifteenth.
  • Pilots make the most mistakes not in the beginning stages of flying, but after having logged around 800 hours of flight.

The above scenarios illustrate what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, the result of a set of cognitive tests, which showed that people who performed the worst were the ones that overestimated their performance.  Ironically, it wasn’t that they didn’t know what they were doing, what led them astray was that they knew ‘a bit more’.

In short, with a bit of experience and knowledge, experts tend to see what they expect to see. Whether we like to admit it or not, this is an innate tendency we are all guilty of—even in the face of potential novel solutions, we tend to default to the familiar.

Consider the ‘candle problem’ experiment conducted by the psychologist, Karl Duncker, where people were asked to attach a candle to the wall by using a box of matches and a box of tacks. Most people struggled to solve the problem because they couldn’t go beyond the boxes in the experiment as something to contain the matches and tacks, not as a shelf for the candle.

Interestingly, there was one group in the experiment that cracked the problem—five-year-old kids. Their secret power? They had a more fluid concept of function. In other words, they didn’t have a preconceived and fixed sense of the boxes, matches, and tacks in the experiment. Additionally, young children aren’t hung up about being wrong or looking silly.

In a research study involving scanning brains of older and younger individuals as they solve cognitive tests, Denise Parks at the University of Texas Centre of Longevity noted that young adults will show activations in specific parts of their brains, while older individuals showed broader activations.

In essence, if you’re an older adult, your brain is compensating for its shortcomings by creating ‘scaffolds’ connecting to a wider range of areas in your brain. You’re using more brain to get the same result as someone younger. More importantly, in trying to learn something new or make sense of a new problem, the memory of a different skill or experience gets in the way.

In the age services industry, this results in a set of familiar and kosher change initiatives that gets recycled. Scour through Royal Commission transcripts, and you’ll get the perception that there is more talk of old programs than new initiatives.

The message here is not that we’re trapped in our cognitive decline, and destined to repeat history. The true take-home is that we actually don’t lose the ability to get better. What seems like cognitive decline is merely a function of learning.

Nobel Laureates are approximately 22 times more likely to take part in amateur pass times and hobbies. For example, Richard Feynman was not only an eminent physicist, he was an avid bongo drum player, an amateur actor, and enjoyed cracking safes. Essentially, by going beyond their expert selves, they could think again, and see the world with a different perspective.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Monk and Teacher, captures this sentiment best with the following: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are a few.’

Perhaps true change begins with us allowing ourselves to be beginners again.

The point about seeing old problems with new eyes is this: you neither yet know the outcome, nor should you.

Merlin Kong is Head of innovAGEING and Interim Director of the Centre for Workforce Development & Innovation, LASA.

Photo: Rohan Thomson